Tag Archives: Mental Illness

Vincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers, by Deborah Heiligman

Theo and VincentTheo Van Gogh was four years younger than his brother, Vincent, and yet he supported him, both financially and emotionally, all of his life. Born in the Netherlands, Vincent moved around Belgium, England, and France in an effort to figure out where he belonged. He did not grow up wishing to be an artist, so when he made the late decision to start painting, he spent years just learning his craft. Theo worked as an agent in an art gallery, and he sent Vincent money for rent, paint, and the little bit of food that he ate. Vincent went for incredibly long walks, worrying his family with his gaunt, disheveled appearance. His worldview was so different from anyone else’s that when he asked Theo to send him more money each month so that he could rent a larger apartment for the prostitute and her children whom he had taken in, he could not understand why Theo refused. He sent sketches and paintings to Theo for critiques, since he knew that his brother was acquainted with all of the latest trends. Once he saw the use of light and color in the works of the Impressionists while on a visit to Theo in Paris, Vincent was inspired and worked feverishly to turn out an amazing amount of art in his short and tragic life.

Known as a post-Impressionist painter, Van Gogh’s artistic understanding is unique. Although he learned from the Impressionists, his thick brush strokes and symbolic elements move him past their more representational style. Perhaps as a result, he did not become financially successful in his lifetime, and his most famous works were created in his last few years. Heiligman demonstrates that it was his sister-in-law, Theo’s widow, who was largely responsible for introducing the world to Van Gogh’s genius.

Vincent Van Gogh portrait


Since these two brothers kept up a steady correspondence throughout their lives, sometimes with more than one letter each day, Heiligman was able to obtain plenty of primary source matter for this double biography. Many others have written about Vincent Van Gogh, but never springing from this relationship that was central to his life. The author follows the brothers from their childhood through their deaths— so close together— and she never shies away from the mental health issues that plagued them increasingly as adults. Their sister, as well, ended her life in a mental institution. Vincent did have some sort of medication, which he seemed to take sporadically, and today he would probably have begun taking medication for bipolar disorder in adolescence, which begs the question of his genius. Would Vincent Van Gogh—and so many other artists and creators—have given their gifts to the world if they had been “normal”? And what is “normal”? Is longer life more important? And who gets to decide?

The best books are the ones that make one think, and I’m still thinking about this one. My only wish is that the author had included more photos of Van Gogh’s artwork, and had referenced the included ones in the text. I looked up a lot of things on Google Images, only to discover a few of them later in the book. This thorough biography was written for teens, but includes details that make it unsuitable for younger readers. It’s on the short list for the Youth Media Awards in February, both in teen literature and nonfiction categories, and it is a worthy candidate, indeed.

Disclaimer: I own a copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.


Leave a comment

Filed under Book Reviews

Turtles All the Way Down, by John Green

Turtles All the Way DownSure, everybody’s teen years are confusing and difficult, but Aza’s life is not so bad. Her single mother is also her history teacher, but she’s a great mom. Daisy, her BFF, has an endless supply of coupons for Applebee’s, so they eat free every week, and the boy she is crushing on even seems to return her affections. It’s just that Aza can’t get past the suspicion that she is a fictional character.

When the feeling becomes oppressive, Aza drives her nail into her finger, and the pain of the split skin reassures her that she is real. This relief is quickly replaced by the fear of infection, so Aza has to remove the ever-present Band-Aid, washing and disinfecting the open wound. And then there are the Wikipedia articles that she feels compelled to read over and over, describing the symptoms of the most dreaded diseases and causing her to live in constant revulsion over all of the bacteria dwelling in her healthy human body.

Daisy lives life out loud. She works at Chucky Cheese, writes fan fiction, and chatters through all of Aza’s silence. When Daisy finds out that they could win $100,000 by finding a missing millionaire, she jumps right in—which means that Aza has to play, too, since she is the one with the wheels.

Bestselling author John Green has described this novel as his most personal work yet. The theme of mental illness has become a growing trend in young adult fiction over the last few years, and often, the main characters are good kids in solid homes with loving parents, which helps to erase the stereotypes in older works. Turtles All the Way Down features Green’s signature witty and precocious teens, with one strong girl just trying to get through high school while drowning in her Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Aza is a thoroughly relatable character who is caught up in the tightening spiral of her own thoughts, someone who would like to focus more on other people, but who cannot escape the fears that consume her every waking moment.

Very highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book, since there will probably never be another galley of a John Green book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not express those of my employer or anyone else.

Leave a comment

Filed under Book Reviews, Life's Travails- Big and Small